Researcher Finds Most People Use Drugs Without Problems
(c) The Dominion (Wellington, New Zealand), Nov. 2001

Please read this article at the Dominion's Web Site. It is also archived and annotated below.

Recreational drug use is here to stay and we need to get our heads around this and stop thinking about prohibiting drugs.

Regulation and education is what is needed, not prohibition, says Peter Cohen, sociologist and associate Professor at the Centre for Drug Research at the University of Amsterdam, as he eschews a cup of coffee for a glass of sparkling mineral water.

Prohibition never worked with alcohol, he says, neither will it work with drugs. Dr Cohen, an international drug expert who "hates cannabis" (he says he belongs to that group which years ago, had fun using it and then left it behind) is careful about his coffee intake, and says his drug of choice is alcohol ("I love New Zealand wines"). And no, he doesn't smoke tobacco.

It's perhaps an unspoken nod to his research which he says demonstrates that drugs, of all sorts, are part of everyday life and, for most users, can be controlled.

Dr Cohen is in Wellington at the invitation of the Coalition for Cannabis Law Reform to make a submission to the health select committee's cannabis inquiry. He says: "For the bulk of drug users and this is what I learned in my research into amphetamine, cocaine and cannabis use is within our normal integrated lifestyle and I didn't know that when I started this research . . . how much it is like integrated alcohol use."

Dr Cohen, 60, has spent 20 years researching drug use, the careers of drug users, the drug policies and histories of a number of countries and the methodology of drug use research.

He is an adviser to the Dutch Government for the design and development of the European monitoring centre for drugs and drug addiction in the European Union and was an adviser to the World Health Organisation global cocaine project.

He says that whatever politicians might think, whether they favour prohibition or legalisation, drug policy will not keep people off drugs. It's a message that politicians will find difficult to swallow, says Dr Cohen, "because they think what they say has an influence in people's drug use".

And that, he says, is as naive as it is ridiculous.

Prohibition thinking clouds the truth about real drug use and "forces us to amplify our frightening images even more".

Drug policy, in the end, has little effect. Research has shown that what are relevant are a society's cultural factors, economic factors, fashions and levels of urbanisation. These are what determine the proportion of the population that will use drugs.

He says there is no country that has stopped the normalisation of drug use among its population. Drugs that were meant to be kept out of society have more or less captured the cultural imagination and come in, despite prohibition.

"My focus is, don't go on trying to do the impossible. Try to regulate the use of drugs as we have done with alcohol."

He says many countries did not follow the United States example of trying to prohibit alcohol. "Wisely so. Instead, they put quality controls on age limits, access, opening hours of pubs . . . there are all sorts of regulations around alcohol. That doesn't mean alcohol isn't sometimes a disturbing factor in our lives . . . but then so is marriage."

Prohibition, he says, was a US invention and was a catastrophe. It didn't work and was discontinued for alcohol, yet it was retained for all other drugs.

The US, he says, "is the Taleban of prohibition; the fundamentalists of drug prohibition". And it was as a result of severe US pressure that the global treaties on drugs evolved. But he says the treaties are toothless, used as an excuse not to progress in drug reform and neglected when they don't suit a country's interests.

Dr Cohen believes the world is gradually turning its back on prohibition. Europe, he says, is clearly going the other way. Germany, France and now Britain are easing drug laws.

He says his interest in drug research arose out of studying how societies, during their historical cultural development, create and construct problems.

Today's "problem", says Dr Cohen, is recreational drug use. In the past it has been the problems of religion, homosexuality, alcohol, each of which has been dealt with. Now, he says, Western man is slowly deconstructing the drug problem just as in most countries it has deconstructed the homosexuality problem, taking it out of penal law and bringing it into the range of human freedoms.

The same has been done with religion: "Religious freedom is a very young freedom in Europe. Before the 19th century there were state religions where you were killed if you did not profess, or in later history, you didn't get the good jobs."

People tend to be educated into a series of assumptions and quasi- knowledge about drugs which are wrong, he says. In fact, most people will use some sort of drug within their dominant lifestyles.

He says it is a myth to think that cocaine or cannabis or amphetamines cannot be controlled by users.

Two long studies of cocaine users in 1985 and 1991, and a big study of cannabis users showed that use only continued for a certain period.

The average age in The Netherlands of a cannabis user is from 19 (from 24 for cocaine) to 35. During this period there are times of lighter use, heavy use and also abstinence. The same is true of alcohol.

There will always be those who over-use drugs, just like those who over-reach themselves in sport and ruin their bodies. "There is always this irrational aspect but we can regulate the bulk of human behaviour into nice lanes," he says.

Truthful education about drugs and their risks is a much more productive approach than prohibition, he says.

So which country has got it right? None, in his view. Not Sweden or Australia and certainly not The Netherlands. He calls Dutch policy schizophrenic because it only decriminalised demand "but the supply was not decriminalised so the wholesale production and importation of marijuana is still a criminal offence. If you allow the population access to drugs, then allow people to trade it."

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